Dr. de Ruyter turned around. “I suppose,” he said, studying her face, surprised at the request from someone he didn’t recognize, but not alarmed. “Please. Sit.”
“Thank you,” Ashley said, and walked into his office, then shut the door behind her and settled into the chair in front of his desk.
The office was smaller than she’d thought it would be. Just big enough for two or three to sit together before it started to seem uncomfortably crowded. But it did have a window with a view of the artificial lake between Building Two and the engineering building.
The professor cleared his throat. “What is it that I can help you with, Ms.—”
“Casey,” Ashley said, seeing no reason to waste one of her back-up identities on this conversation. “I’ve been reading up about a Project Athena, and I was hoping you’d be able to tell me more about it,” she said as innocuously as possible.
At once his expression changed. There was a flicker of recognition in it.
Was it possible that he’d been warned about her coming?
“I have never heard of any Project Athena,” de Ruyter said quickly, not meeting her eyes.
He had virtually no accent, but there was a vaguely foreign quality to his speech nonetheless. Perhaps some legacy of his first having acquired English from a textbook.
“At any rate,” de Ruyter continued, “I will be cutting my office hour short today . . .”
“Maybe you know it by another name,” Ashley allowed. “Perhaps the same one by which you referred to your activity at Gotham University.”
It occurred to Ashley that she should have named Povenmire, not Gotham, but she’d said the last without thinking. As the words escaped her lips she realized what a gamble this was, bringing up his connection with Gotham U solely on the basis of that dream—and half-expected him to look at her like she was a madwoman.
But that wasn’t what happened. He stopped in mid-movement, apparently paralyzed. And in his face Ashley again saw recognition. The kind of recognition Ashley saw in people noticing a familiar face, rather than just a familiar word.
A face seen through the window of that little white room.
“Sit down, tell me what I want to know, and you won’t see me again,” Ashley said.
“I already told you that I have never heard of this project you are talking about. I can’t help you.”
“Can’t, or won’t?” Ashley asked. “As a neuroscientist, I’m sure you know about the ways that the body gives away its lies—and that you’re a particularly bad liar.
“You’ve probably also figured out that I’m not going to just leave.”
“I’ll call security,” de Ruyter said, reaching for the phone on his desk.
“No you won’t,” Ashley said, producing her automatic and rising out of her own chair as the adrenaline surged through her. “Take your hand off the phone.”
The professor studied the weapon in her hand. Ashley didn’t know how he’d react to that, if confronting him with the gun might not make things worse, make him try something stupid. But he showed no signs of panic, quietly withdrawing his hand from the phone, and keeping his mouth shut.
Once again Ashley thought of how she’d pulled a gun on a man for the first time Saturday. Today she was threatening a senior citizen—who, whatever he may have done to her in the past, hadn’t raised a finger against her here and now—with what looked like a bullet in the head. If she did shoot, she would of course hit him with fifty thousand volts of electricity instead, but it occurred to her now that even this may have been lethal for a man his age.
She’d balked earlier at being a kidnapper, but now she was threatening what looked like, what may have been, murder. But she felt desperate. And she knew it wasn’t just being on the run that was making her desperate. There was also what happened to her at this seemingly harmless old man’s hands, which somehow seemed less and less a separate thing.
“I realize that security aren’t the only ones you’re thinking of calling,” Ashley said. “But it won’t do you any good. If you don’t tell me everything I need to know, right here, right now, I’ll tell them and everyone else on the Web what I already know, and say that it was you who told it to me.
“You might think that’s a weak threat on my part. But then I already found you here, and you know that I know things I shouldn’t. And I think the people who are with you on this take a ‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent’ policy.
“On the other hand, if I get away from here, no one has to know we ever talked. At least, if I don’t get caught. Which gives you reason to make this happen quickly, and maybe give me enough detail that I can think of a way to keep you out of it all if at some point I ever have a conversation with your friends.”
Ashley stopped now to catch her breath. And let all that sink in.
“You recognized me just now, even though you supposedly never saw me before in your life, and don’t tell me it was Déjà vu, or a mistake, or anything else like that,” she continued. “I want to know why. What was that experiment at Gotham University about?”
De Ruyter settled back down into his chair. “In very general terms . . . we were experimenting with the use of electromagnetic fields in altering the patterns of electrical activity in the human brain. Its effects on human behavior.”
“So basically you stimulated the brain to get certain reactions?” Ashley asked.
“Yes, you could put it that way,” de Ruyter said.
“What kind of reactions?”
“We were particularly interested in aggression and passivity,” de Ruyter said.
That didn’t explain anything as far as she was concerned. “And what happened to me?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re getting at,” de Ruyter said.
“What happened when you performed the experiment on me?” Ashley asked, the emphasis on the last word in the sentence unintended.
Perhaps Professor de Ruyter also picked up on that, but what he did was avoid her gaze, and then fold his hands in front of his face, as if about to make a very complicated point. “You have to understand that we were in new territory . . .”
“I don’t have to understand anything,” Ashley said.
The professor hesitated. “The application of the field did not work as we had intended. The result was that it caused you considerable pain, and, we feared, traumatic stress.”
“Traumatic stress,” Ashley thought, remembering Melanie Roberts’ description of the girl she saw screaming her head off after one of the experiments.
“So we used an experimental neural inhibitor,” de Ruyter continued. “Injected in a sufficiently large dosage, we thought this drug had a good chance of suppressing a recently formed memory. An interview after the experiment suggested success in that regard.”
A drug they kept on hand after their experience with Shelley, she supposed. “Not complete success,” Ashley said to him. “And not a complete answer, either. The pain wasn’t all of it, was it?”
“Our thought was that there may have been damage to your auto-receptors, and that a possible result was changes to your personality: the elimination of the ‘brakes’ that keep the tendency to seek thrills in check,” de Ruyter said.